The Drink and Dream Teahouse
by Justin Hill
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
344 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Teahouse of Sorrow
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Novels inspired by Chinese culture are no new phenomenon, as illustrated by the popularity of writers like Amy Tan, Jung Chang and Wayson Choy. But for the most part, this genre of fiction has a historical flavor, gazing backwards into the country's ancient past. Few are brave enough to wade into the complexities of present-day, post-Tiananmen China, with its colliding forces of Communist rigidity and a heady new capitalism which creates the powerful illusion of personal freedom.
Justin Hill not only wades in, he's not even Chinese, but an Englishman. A student still in his 20s, he received a huge advance for the book before it was finished. These Cinderella-like publishing tales create high expectations for a work before it even reaches the public. How well did he meet these inflated hopes?
In creating the unique atmosphere of a turbulent new culture layered atop an ancient foundation, he has succeeded admirably. Even the Taipei Times, who could have been forgiven for being harsh, called the book "a minor masterpiece ... a beautiful book" and suggested it should be translated into Chinese. But in creating an arc of events (and thereby sustaining plot tension) and in the delicate area of character development and relationship, his lucid watercolors become somewhat smudged.
In real life, events often appear to happen in a shapelessly random fashion and much of human nature is kept submerged, iceberg-like, below the publically approved tip. Ironically, The Drink and Dream Teahouse may be a little too true to ordinary life to reach the level of greatness.
Set in the shabby rural town of Shaoyang, the novel opens starkly with a suicide. The town's main nerve center for employment and even identity, the Number Two Space Rocket Factory, has just been closed down. Party Secretary Li, an old man who remembers more hopeful times, hangs himself in disillusionment and disgrace. No sooner has he died than the professional mourners move in:
A squad of old women came hobbling up from nowhere and sat down in the middle of the marquee. They had half a mouthful of teeth between them, and white rags wrapped around their heads.
(Ghastly old women, some with bound feet, pop up quite frequently in this book, perhaps suggesting traditions that have fallen into decay.) Former factory worker Old Zhu ends up as custodian of Party Secretary Li's ashes after picking them up at a government agency run like a madly busy deli:
'I've come for Party Secretary Li,' he called out but the attendants took no notice.
Old Zhu's wife (curiously, never given a name) is horrified when her husband brings home the remains in a box: "That night his wife insisted she couldn't sleep with a dead man in her wardrobe, but she did." But soon the couple faces a much greater upheaval. Their son Da Shan, who left seven years earlier to seek his fortune, has suddenly come home, divorced and, by their standards, a wealthy man.
He returns to a confusing muddle of a place, hung with Communist slogans such as "Foster a correct spirit" and "Resist corruption!", yet full of garish new Americanized spots such as the Number One Patriotic Karaoke Night Club:
An awning of fairy lights was strung above the door, a neon sign flashed out the name of the place, and the English word 'OK OK OK' flashed repeatedly in blue, red and green. At the door two statues of smiling girls in traditional robes of embroidered silk imperceptibly nodded their heads.
If Da Shan is seeking to reconnect with his past, he is sorely disappointed:
This is the ultimate tragedy, he thought, the traveler who comes home to find that home is no longer there.
What we don't know until deeper into the story is that Da Shan bears the scars of a traumatic past. The shadow of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre hangs heavily over this novel, personified by Da Shan who served time in prison for his involvement. Worse than that, he was torn away from the woman he loved, Liu Bei, a fellow dissident who now survives by working in a brothel called the Drink and Dream Teahouse.
Da Shan's mother seeks to marry off her now-eligible son to Peach, the naïve young daughter of a neighbor. Meanwhile Da Shan becomes involved in a money-making scheme with the repulsive Fat Pan, a drunken, aggressive former colleague now prominent in the army. But these various streams of plot meander along somewhat aimlessly, not gaining a lot of momentum. The connections between the characters are not always very deep or convincing; Peach's strange affair with a "peasant" boy (actually the owner of a small business) leads to some of the least erotic sex scenes ever written.
But there are wonderful touches of subtle humor, as when Old Zhu, a compulsive gardener, fusses over a potted plant: "The next day [he] returned with a chrysanthemum plant, put it next to the terracotta pot, as if he were arranging a marriage. The flower nodded and the deal was done." A propaganda film features workers with "broad Communist smiles." And a long sticky season has never been better described: "In the city, people began to view summer like a visiting relative: a pleasure at first but increasingly unwelcome."
Even more effective are passages describing the horrors endured by Da Shan's parents. This trauma echoes into the next generation with Da Shan's memories of his boyhood, separated from his parents for years:
In the weeks and years that followed Party workers had told him Chairman Mao is your father. Da Shan had tried ever so hard to love The Great Helmsman with all his heart, but he'd secretly loved his mother and father even though they were enemies of the state. In that long five years with no news and no letters Da Shan had learnt that a mother-shaped hole and a father-shaped hole were almost big enough to swallow the world.
The Drink and Dream Teahouse is at its best when recounting the cost of political oppression in individual human lives. Yet this very oppressiveness leads to a narrowness of scope, almost an inertia, with the characters' lives spent moving in tight little circles of ritual. There is a near-obsession with food preparation and a preoccupation with prostitution (one character remarks about Liu Bei, "If she didn't have a hole between her legs she'd be penniless"), as if momentary pleasure can make up for the loss of individual fulfillment.
A certain resignation permeates the book, making for a slightly suffocating read. Though the novel has some sensitive and beautiful writing, ultimately it feels as hobbled as the bound feet of the old women Hill so often portrays. | July 2001
Margaret Gunning has reviewed many books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.